Back in February Boris Johnson said that "no child will be left behind" because of the pandemic. The appointment of well respected career educationalist and former labour adviser Sir Kevan Collins as education recovery commissioner (or schools catch up tsar to the popular press) was meant to deliver a long term plan for achieving this goal as part of getting schools fully re-opened and "back on track". Earlier this month Collins resigned in a hissy fit after he asked for £15bn to fund the initiative and got £1.4bn over three years in addition to £1.7bn already announced.
What does this show I wonder? Well obviously we should be very suspicious of hyperbole such as "no child will be left behind". We might also wonder about the wisdom of appointing someone who can't spell Kevin to such a role (OK, sorry, it's an Irish version I guess). I saw comment that officials were not surprised Collins quit, seeing him as a resignation waiting to happen, but this might have just been a clumsy smear, like my jibe about his name.
However, I'm suspicious for another reason: I can't make the numbers make sense, at least on the basis of the reports in the media. Of the £1.4bn £400m is earmarked for training and £1bn for supporting up to 6 million 15-hour tutoring courses for pupils.
Collins wanted a programme of 100 hours, including sports, music and the arts. That would require 7 times the £1bn offered, not 15.
100 hours is consistent with the widely reported half an hour a day for the catch up programme, half an hour a day, five days a week, 40 weeks a year being 100 hours a year. As the programme is meant to run for three years one might get to around £15bn by multiplying the £1bn on the table by 100 over 15 and then 3, at least roughly.
But hang on. In 2019-20 the total spend on schools in England (primary, secondary and 6th form) was £51 bn according to the IFS. Dividing that cost by the typical school day of 7 hours gives a total cost of around £7bn per hour of the school day, so £3.5bn for half an hour. So that doesn't get me to Collins's £15bn. And that is ALL costs so the overhead costs of the buildings etc are already covered. So how can the proposal to extend the school day by half an hour possibly cost as much as Collins was seeking?
Apparently there would be extensive use of private tutors but the extra cost still seems disproportionate. Anyway, why can't the teachers work half an hour a day longer?
Which gave me an idea. An idea about the huge opportunity this represents for the teaching unions. The teachers clearly could work longer hours, for which they would not unreasonably expect to get paid. But what if they offered to do it without extra pay?
Oh, I'm not so daft to think that teachers would do it for nothing, though as we are recovering from a global pandemic all sorts of people in all sorts of occupations are probably doing just that.
My idea is that the teachers unions should offer to do the extra work without extra pay in return for some things that they value just as much, if not more. It would be very hard for the government to decline such an offer, which would set a good example for other sectors of the economy. After all, one reason the government baulked at Collins's demands would have been the precedent it set for other public sector activities. One can just imagine the length of the begging bowl queue.
What would the teachers ask for in exchange? A permanent gripe is the amount of paperwork involved in modern teaching. So an obvious proposition would be "we'll do the half an hour without pay if you promise to find ways of reducing the admin load on teachers by an equivalent amount of time". In other words a classic efficiency initiative. If what I hear about the load on teachers is correct this ought to be eminently possible.
Other asks might be to overhaul the Ofsted inspection regime. Note I said "overhaul" and not "scrap". But a reduction in the amount of inspection work in schools would be reasonable in the circumstances. Some Ofsted inspectors could be temporarily engaged in the catch up programme. (I accept I am glossing over the fact that some inspectors do that job because they didn't like - or weren't much good at - teaching).
There must be other things that the teachers unions would like to see. These would have to be realistic and not contentious. No daft proposals like scrap all exams for ever....
Of course this all assumes that the teachers unions actually care about schools succeeding, which might be a misplaced assumption on my part. But they could make themselves heroes... and for more than just one day, as the song goes.
They might even induce us to clap them.
P.S. I can understand the government concentrating on numeracy and literacy. It had been reported that 200,000 children would leave school this year unable to read and write properly. This got widely misreported as illiterate, rather than not up to the specified standards. Nevertheless, Collins used the data to "put a rocket up" ministers. What grabbed my attention was firstly this number is around a third of the annual high school entry - a rough guess on my part based on there being 8.3million state school pupils in England - but a huge proportion nonetheless. And, secondly, lockdowns have increased the number by just 30,000 over the previous year. So the problem was huge to begin with. As with everything else covid has magnified pre-existing problems.
It's less clear to me why funding is required to get children to catch up at sport. Once allowed to play it they'll soon catch up. Music and the arts - debatable, I'd argue when there are so many calls on time and money. There has to be some prioritisation, at least in which areas should be tackled first.
Numbers from inews.co.uk 3 June 2021: Sir Kevan Collins: What the education tsar wanted for the school catch-up plan versus what children will get and Institute of Fiscal Studies 2020 report on annual spending on education in England: schools which gives the £51 billion figure. Cross checking these numbers and finding any sensible breakdown amongst the voluminous charts and graphs all trying to make political points is quite difficult.
inews also reported that 200,000 children would leave primary school unable to read or write "properly" on 4 April 2021 noting that the Sunday Times had claimed unpublished government statistics said this was 30,000 more than the previous year.